How Charles Schulz and his Peanuts strip re-shaped the comics medium.
When he announced his retirement after producing a comic strip every day, seven days a week, for almost fifty years, the face of his creation appeared on the cover of Newsweek.
When Charles M. Schulz died a heartbreakingly scant two months later, his face was on the cover of People magazine.
The cover treatment in both instances was a dramatic manifestation of the immensely popular appeal of Schulz’s comic strip, Peanuts: magazine publishers don’t put faces on their covers unless they’re pretty certain the faces will sell magazines.
And in this demonstration of his prowess, we find ample testimony to the enduring potency of newspaper comic strips: no single comic strip can attain such heights unless comic strips generally are enormously popular with the reading public.
Even that staid gray lady of the Big Apple, The New York Times, recognized the Peanuts power: the announcement of Schulz’s death at the age of 77 appeared on page one and jumped inside to an unprecedented two-page spread. And the Times, as a matter of policy, doesn’t even publish comic strips.
The last new Peanuts strip was published on Sunday, February 13, 2000. Schulz, ever the master of timing, died the night before. The coincidence was staggering and provoked awed comment everywhere. Diane Iselin, a spokeswoman for Schulz’s syndicate, said: “It’s almost as if he couldn’t bear to live without creating Peanuts every day.”
Certainly Sparky (as everyone who knew him called him) hadn’t stopped doing his comic strip willingly. Diagnosed with colon cancer and suffering from the after effects of several small strokes, he no longer had the energy to produce comedy on deadline. Shortly after he announced his retirement in December 1999, Schulz was interviewed on the Today show.
“I never dreamed that this would happen to me,” he said. “I always had the feeling that I would stay with the strip until I was in my early eighties — or something like that. But all of a sudden it’s gone. It’s been taken away from me. I did not take it away. This was taken away from me,” he finished, his voice cracking.
Schulz received many awards and honors during his long career — including, twice, the Reuben for “outstanding cartoonist of the year” from the National Cartoonists Society. And he was posthumously awarded the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from NCS at its Reuben Banquet on May 27, 2000.
But all these awards and honors pale in significance beside the world-wide affection and regard that his comic strip enkindled. Thousands conveyed their best wishes and gratitude in cards and letters sent to Schulz upon his retirement.
During that Today interview, Schulz expressed his astonishment at his fame and the admiration he inspired among his readers and colleagues. “It is amazing that they think that what I do was that good,” he said haltingly, his voice quavering. “I just did the best I could,” he finished, nearly breaking down.
His best turned out to be so very good that it ushered in the Age of Schulz.
Peanuts broke new ground in newspaper comic strips. The sense of humor on display in Schulz’s strip was different, more subtle, than could be found elsewhere on the comics pages when it first appeared (in a paltry seven newspapers on October 2, 1950). Even the drawings in Peanuts added a new dimension to comic strip art — a minimalist simplicity that would become its most imitated aspect. But the name of the strip, that was something else.
“Peanuts is the worst title ever thought up for a comic strip,” Schulz said on numerous occasions. The strip was christened by the editors at United Feature Syndicate, who didn’t like Schulz’s name for it. (Moreover, Li’l Folks, his original title, evoked Li’l Abner, another United strip, and it was too much like the name of a retired strip, Little Folks, by Tack Knight.)
The syndicate editors thought Peanuts was the perfect name for an all-kids strip. (And it fit their marketing scheme perfectly, too, as we’ll soon see.) But Schulz hated the title and resented it his entire career.
“I don’t even like the word,” he said. “It’s not a nice word. It’s totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing, and has no dignity. And I think my humor has dignity. The strip I was going to draw I thought would have dignity. It would have class. They didn’t know when I walked in there that here was a fanatic. Here was a kid totally dedicated to what he was going to do. And then to label something that was going to be a life’s work with a name like Peanuts was really insulting.”
Born November 26, 1922, Schulz grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the shy and only son of a barber. He took a course in art from a correspondence school, the Federal School, based in Minneapolis. And during World War II, he was drafted and served overseas in the infantry. After V-J Day, he returned to the Twin Cities and took a position with the Federal School, now called Art Instruction School, correcting student mailed-in lessons.
He freelanced in his spare time, lettering comic strips for a locally-produced Catholic magazine and, eventually, producing a cartoon feature called Li’l Folks for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The feature ran once a week, a collection of single-panel cartoons about the antics of little children who seemed a bit more sophisticated than most cartoon children.
The kids were cute because of the way Schulz drew them. They were all tiny, and Schulz distorted proportions — giving them round heads as big as their bodies — which made them seem even more diminutive. And tiny was cute.
Schulz was also sending cartoons to national magazines. He broke into The Saturday Evening Post with the submission of a single drawing of a small boy who was seated on the end of a chaise longue, dwarfed by the expanse of the seating arrangements, in order to prop his feet up on a footstool.
While submitting gag cartoons to magazines, Schulz also submitted ideas for feature cartoons to syndicates. Early in 1950, United Feature indicated interest in Li’l Folks, and when Schulz journeyed to New York for a conference, they decided a strip format would be better than the panel format.
The editors saw in Schulz’s tiny figures a novel marketing ploy. At the time, newspaper editors were restive about the amount of precious newsprint paper they devoted to comic strips every day and were looking for ways to reduce the size of comic strips. Because Schulz’s characters were small, the editors decided to tailor the strip’s dimensions to the kids’ size — a maneuver that would, they believed, appeal to editors seeking to conserve space.
Schulz’s strip would have the same horizontal dimension as all strips but would be shallower vertically. It would therefore take less room. And then the editors added yet another marketing ingredient: the strip should always be drawn in four equal-sized panels. This arrangement would give editors great flexibility in running the strip. They could run the strip in one column with the four panels stacked vertically, or they could divide the strip in half, the first two panels stacked on top of the other two panels, and run it as a two-column box.
The syndicate’s promotional brochure for the strip touted these aspects of the strip’s design — and its tiny size. “The Greatest Little Sensation Since Tom Thumb!” the brochure trumpeted. For such a feature, Peanuts was the perfect title. “Peanuts” suggested something small.
To Schulz, it suggested something insignificant — ”something with no color,” he muttered, “or else it might be the nickname of a ball player or some little kid.” He pointed out that readers would assume the strip was named after one of the characters: “They’re going to confuse Charlie Brown with the name.”
The editors assured him that wouldn’t happen.
“Then throughout the first year,” Schulz said, “I got letters saying, I love this new strip with Peanuts and his dog. Geez!”
The editors mistakenly supposed that “peanuts” was a common term for little children. This astonishingly wrong-headed conclusion was not based upon anything in their own life experiences, apparently; instead, it was drawn entirely from a popular kids’ television program of the day, The Howdy Doody Show. The show’s principals were marionettes, and the puppet show was performed before a live studio audience of children. The audience seating area was called “the peanut gallery” by everyone on the show, and every time “the peanut gallery” was mentioned, all the kids cheered with gusto.
Schulz wasn’t convinced; he knew kids are never called “peanuts.”
Despite the gimmicky packaging, the strip got off to a slow start. But after a year, it was picking up client papers steadily. And it continued to increase circulation through the decade. Then in the 1960s, it took off.
By the mid-1950s, Schulz had found his footing. He had begun to develop the idiosyncratic personalities of his characters. Charlie Brown had become the archetypal mid-century American man in search of his identity, and his dog Snoopy had started to fantasize an assortment of human roles for himself. Schroeder had established Beethoven as the strip’s icon. And Lucy Van Pelt had made a name for herself as a world-class fuss budget.
Reflecting on the strip’s development, Schulz said: “When Lucy came into the strip, around the second year, she didn’t do much at first. She came in as a cute little girl, and at first she was patterned after our own first daughter. She said a lot of cute, tiny kid things, but I grew out of that whole `tiny’ world quickly, and that’s when the strip started to catch on. … As Charlie Brown got more defensive, as Snoopy [became] a different kind of dog, as Lucy started to develop her own strong personality, I realized I was really on to something different. And I think the security blanket really was the major breakthrough.”
Linus, Lucy’s baby brother, didn’t talk when he first appeared in the strip; he was too young. But as he grew older, he talked plenty — profoundly, even: he became the strip’s scholarly idealist and philosopher. En route, he clutched his flannel baby blanket and sucked his thumb. And when Schulz called it a “security blanket,” he added a term to the American lexicon and struck a chord with readers everywhere. Suddenly, everyone was identifying with one or more of the Peanuts gang.
In 1962, Schulz produced a book of aphorisms called Happiness Is a Warm Puppy. It was an immediate bestseller, confirming a growing suspicion: the American public had Peanuts mania.
In April 1965, Time did a cover story on Schulz and his strip (April 9). And in October, Snoopy climbed on top of his doghouse and flew it into the skies of World War I for epic battles with the Red Baron. The list of subscribing newspapers grew by leaps. And then that Christmas, the first television special was unveiled, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Peanuts was undeniably big time. By the early 1990s, the strip was being published in over 2,000 newspapers in 68 countries; by the end of the decade, the number reached 2,600 worldwide. It’s hard to imagine there being any more newspapers than that.
There have been 30 television specials, 4 feature films, and an off-Broadway play, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” And Schulz, thanks to the merchandizing of his characters, was many times over a millionaire.
Schulz retained direct control over the licensing, personally approving every use of every image of his characters. Despite this inherent roadblock to saturation merchandising, the Peanuts gang was ubiquitous. Charlie Brown and Snoopy — particularly Snoopy — were everywhere, even, eventually, around the moon with the astronauts. The Age of Schulz is distinguished as much by this wholly commercial aspect of Schulz’s work as by the simplicity of his drawing style and the uniqueness of his sense of humor.
Peanuts was unquestionably the world’s most popular comic strip. And its popularity made it a candidate for imitation.
In spite of the strip’s undeniable originality, Peanuts has served as a model for a great variety of new strips. Aspects of it can be easily aped. The “show” in Peanuts, albeit brilliant, is not as obvious a dazzling and highly individual combination of ingredients as is, say, Pogo. For one thing, the surface elements of Peanuts, its most apparent features, lend themselves easily to adaptation by others, who shape those elements into an expression of their own talents.
Once the strip became popular, its simple graphic treatment began to set a new fashion for gag strips. Gag strips had always been drawn in the comic rather than the illustrative manner, but even comic characters bore more resemblance to real people than do the characters in Peanuts with their tiny bodies and big, round heads. Like Mort Walker, whose Beetle Bailey debuted only a month before Peanuts and achieved, for a time, an equivalent circulation, Schulz drew in a “magazine cartoon style,” but his work was more abstract at the start than Walker’s.
Since Peanuts, a number of gag strips have been drawn with similarly stylized simplicity, often so simple as to appear crude. The unfortunate fact about simple drawing styles is that clumsy, inept drawing ability seems, to the unsophisticated artistic eye of most newspaper editors, to be just another variety of simplicity. So pretty soon the funnies were awash in strips drawn in a minimalist manner, often little more than primitive scrawls with no redeeming aesthetic quality at all.
The humor of Peanuts also set new standards. Almost from its beginning, the strip appeared quite simply to be about children who often spoke in a remarkably adult way. The humor arose from the dichotomy between the speakers and what they said, between the visual and the verbal presentations.
To this, Schulz brought a unique cast of characters, each with a distinct personality trait or quirk that offered additional possibilities for variation on the initial themes. Schroeder had fixation on Beethoven. Lucy was a chronic complainer. “Pig Pen” was a kid who couldn’t stay clean: no matter what he did, he wound up dirty from head to toe. And Charlie Brown was a loser. But he didn’t start that way.
“I didn’t know he was going to lose all the time,” Schulz once said. “He certainly wasn’t [at first] the victim [he became]. When he began, he had a personality a lot like Linus. He was slightly flippant, a kind of bouncy little character. He was able to come back with a wise saying to the other characters.”
But Charlie Brown was unpopular from the very beginning. He was often annoyingly clever. And he wanted to be “perfect,” as he sometimes confessed. And from these ingredients, Schulz eventually fashioned the epitome of the loser, Charlie Brown the culture hero.
Schulz could parlay the personalities of his cast into strings of gags. A given situation — say, Linus getting ready to leave for summer camp — can be presented for several days, and on each day, a different character reacts to the situation in his own individualistic way. This method, in turn, lends itself to the creation of “set pieces” that can be repeated with endless permutations.
Schulz once identified twelve such devices, routines to which he attributes the popularity of the strip: (1) the kite-eating tree that frustrates Charlie Brown’s every attempt to fly a kite; (2) Schroeder’s music, the elaborate visual of a stanza of classical music, and Beethoven; (3) Lucy’s psychiatry booth from which the fuss budget delivers her pragmatic and unsympathetic advice; (4) Snoopy’s doghouse, the vehicle for the beagle’s over-active imagination; (5) Snoopy himself, another example of a second banana taking over a strip; (6) the bird Wood-stock, Snoopy’s second banana; (7) the Red Baron, which symbolizes Snoopy’s emergence into stardom; (8) the baseball games that Charlie Brown always loses; (9) kicking a football, an annual exercise in which Lucy tricks Charlie Brown into trying to kick the football she holds then yanks it away at the last moment, landing the hapless Charlie Brown flat on his back; (10) the Great Pumpkin, Linus’s yearly search for confirmation of his spiritual sincerity; (11) the little red-haired girl with whom Charlie Brown is hopelessly in love; and (12) Linus’s blanket.
Much of the humor in Peanuts arises from ordinary, trifling daily incidents. It is with this aspect of the strip that Schulz believes he did something new. “I introduced the slight incident,” he said. “I can remember creating it sitting at the desk … what would happen in the three panels that I was drawing at that time was a very brief and slight incident. No one had ever done that before in comic strips. Older kid strips were of the `What shall we do today?’ school. I changed all of that. I remember telling a friend that I knew I was really on to something good.”
Percy Crosby in his great kid strip Skippy had done something similar, Schulz acknowledges; but Crosby’s kids haven’t the idiosyncratic personalities that Schulz’s kids have.
The “slight incident” acquires comic impact only in conjunction with the pronounced personality of one of the strip’s characters. Until Schulz showed how to combine these elements with a different emphasis, gag strip humor had been chiefly situational: the comedy sprang more from the situation than the characters. The characters had personalities, and they behaved “in character” in whatever situation they were placed, but the emphasis was on the situation.
Schulz shifted the focus. He showed his characters reacting to the most mundane situations imaginable, and because their personalities were so convincingly developed, he could create comedy. When Charlie Brown coaches Linus in penmanship and Linus demonstrates an impressive calligraphic style at his first try, the incident (using a pen for the first time) is less important to the humor than Linus’ personality (he’s a unqualified genius, expert at anything he may put his hand to).
In similar fashion, Schulz can wring laughter out of Snoopy scowling at Lucy or licking her face, or Linus’s shoelaces being too tight. And once Schulz had demonstrated how singular personalities can generate humor in a strip, other cartoonists began mining the same terrain.
While the essential element of the strip’s humor arises from the contrast between the world of children and that of adults, the charm of Peanuts and its introspective greatness lies not in its pointing to the difference between adults and children, but in its emphasizing the similarity.
Charlie Brown and his friends may sound precocious, but the strip nonetheless preserves the innocence, the dreams, and the aspirations as well as the trials and insecurities of childhood. Peanuts makes childhood universal without making it adult — as does Miss Peach, for example, in which the precocious kids sometimes sound as cynical as we are led to believe all adults become. In Peanuts, the kids never become cynical.
The achievement at the source of Peanuts’ appeal is the trick Schulz plays with the very nature of his medium. The pictures show us small children. But their speech reveals that they are infected with fairly adult insecurities and quirks and other often disheartening preoccupations. The dichotomy between picture and word permits us to laugh about heartbreak.
Because the Peanuts characters are kids, their personality flaws don’t seem all that important to us. Kids’ problems are always relatively trivial compared to grown-ups’ problems. As adults, we tend to dismiss kids’ problems. Or we chuckle because those problems seem so monumental to the kids plagued by them. We — older and wiser — see that these problems are actually small problems. We understand that they will go away.
Even as we chuckle at the Peanuts gang, however, we realize that the same preoccupations that haunt them often haunt us as adults. Because these are kids, we can see the humor in their dilemmas. And because we can recognize their dilemmas as ours, we can see the humor in our predicaments, too. Before we know it, we are laughing at ourselves. With a giggle, we put our cares behind us (or beside us) and go on with our lives.
That’s how Schulz worked his trick. And he worked it so well that it made his comic strip the most famous comic strip in the world.
Besides that, his kids, with their big round heads and lilliputian bodies, are just plain funny-looking. And that makes their having problems all the more hilarious: that these goofy-looking characters could have real-life problems is incongruous and therefore funny.
If it weren’t for the funny pictures — and the comedy that is born in the dichotomy of pictures and words — Peanuts would be pretty discouraging. Charlie Brown never gets a Valentine from the little red-haired girl; his baseball team never wins; his kite never flies. On the basis of this evidence, we have a strip about unrequited love and unrealized aspiration.
But Charlie Brown always comes back. Every fall, he tries to kick that football once again — knowing, no doubt (how could he not?), that Lucy will snatch it away at the last minute and that he (and his ambition) will come crashing down one more time.
And so the strip is also about human resilience and hope, hope that rises again like a phoenix from the ashes of each and every disappointment.
Against this somewhat ordinary and certainly unglamorous assessment of the human condition, Schulz balances the fantasy life of Snoopy, whose seeming brilliant success at every endeavor reassures us that life is not only about disappointment and endurance: it is also about dreams and the sustaining power of the imagination.
Snoopy embodies the strip’s constantly questing spirit better than any of the other characters. During the sixties, Snoopy rose to such prominence that he threatened to take over the strip. The humor here springs from the dog’s preoccupation with pursuits normally followed by humans; again, a dichotomy is at the core of the mechanism. And, again, it is the dichotomy of the non-sequitur: from the evidence presented to our eyes (a dog), it does not follow that we will be witnessing activity usually associated with humans (flying an airplane, writing a novel).
We were not always privileged to know Snoopy’s thoughts. At first, he was a dog like all dogs. He barked; he didn’t write novels. But then, he began thinking. He thought about how much he disliked being a dog. He tried being other animals — an alligator, a kangaroo, a lion lurking in the tall grass. Then he began doing imitations of humans — of Lucy, Violet, even Beethoven. Before long, he was walking on his hind legs. And then he started flying his doghouse into dogfights with the Red Baron.
Mort Walker watched Snoopy’s development into something other than a beagle with growing dismay — then wonderment.
“When Charlie Schulz first did Snoopy in a helmet sitting on top of the doghouse pretending he was fighting the Red Baron, I thought Schulz was going to ruin the strip. I could believe Snoopy sitting up there sort of pretending or imagining he was a vulture or something, but where did he get the helmet? What does a dog know about World War I or the Red Baron? And then he showed bullet holes in the dog house. I said, Good golly — this has gone beyond the pale. Then when it became so popular, I said, It just shows you — comics, as Rube Goldberg used to say, are an individual effort that is so beyond explaining that nobody could ever mastermind it.”
Schulz sees Snoopy as the fantasy element of the strip. “He is the image of what people would like a dog to be,” he told Time. Maybe not all people; maybe just children. In his role playing, Snoopy clearly does what little kids normally do: he imagines adventures in which he is the hero.
His charm, Schulz recognizes, resides in the child-like combination of innocence and egotism that define his personality and propel him into new and unlikely circumstances again and again. He never tires, never gives up. And neither does Charlie Brown.
Despite Snoopy’s bid for stardom in the strip, the strong personalities of the other characters kept reasserting themselves. And Schulz kept inventing more distinctive personalities — Peppermint Patty, Marci, Sally, Rerun. But he always came back to Charlie Brown.
“All the ideas on how poor old Charlie Brown can lose give me great satisfaction,” Schulz once said. “But of course his reactions to all of this are equally important. He just keeps fighting back. He just keeps trying. And I guess that particular theme has caught the imagination of a lot of people nowadays. We all need the feeling that somebody really likes us. And I’m very proud that somehow all these ideas about Charlie Brown’s struggle might help in some very small way.”
Schulz was quite aware of his influence on his profession — particularly with respect to visual imagery. We talked about it briefly during the only time I ever spent with him — about the trend of simple drawing in comic strips that he had inaugurated.
“I’m not so sure it’s a good thing,” he said with a smile.
For Schulz, however, Peanuts was a very good thing indeed.
The venerated Editor & Publisher, the newspaperman’s trade mag, published a special supplement to its issue of October 30, 1999. The special issue named the “25 most influential newspaper people of the 20th century,” including such legendary figures as Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Robert McCormick, Joseph Patterson, William Allen White, H. L. Mencken. Pulitzer is credited with giving newspaper journalism a social mission, crusading always for reform and progress, and against injustice, demagoguery, and corruption. Hearst, in contrast, practiced journalism according to his belief that the public “is more fond of entertainment than it is of information.” Over the century, Hearst’s way has doubtless won out.
It was the Pulitzer-Hearst circulation battles of the mid-1890s that saw the coining of the term “yellow journalism” for their particular brand of sensation-mongering in search of a newsstand nickel. The two papers enlisted a comic character, Richard F. Outcault’s famed Yellow Kid, in their battles, each paper touting its Sunday comic section’s stellar creation as an attraction. Yellow Kid posters were everywhere promoting both papers. So bystanders to this fray began calling the newspapers “the Yellow Kid journals,” then just “the yellow journals.” And by subsequent evolution, the kind of journalism practiced in them became known as “yellow journalism.”
None of this is quite beside the point because the point is that the E&P’s “top 25″ includes two cartoonists — Herbert Block, the celebrated editorial cartoonist, and Charles Schulz.
This is a signal event. That a couple of newspaper cartoonists are viewed by the trade’s bible as influential at all — let alone being among the twenty-five “most influential newspaper people of the century” — is a trumpet blast about the importance of cartooning. We all know it’s important, us cartoonery types and fans of the medium. But to have E&P proclaim it to its hundreds of newspaper editor readers is a stunning confirmation of what we’ve all maintained.
Not that there’s anything very new about it. Pulitzer knew it. Hearst knew it. They knew that their Sunday comics were selling newspapers. And every periodical publisher in this country knows that Scott Adams’ Dilbert is doing the same thing. It’s the thing comics have been doing since the very beginning.
But sometimes editors forget. In their dogged pursuit of DNA codes in dress stains and cocaine busts in ancient Texas, they forget. So it’s nice that E&P should remind newspaper editors about the importance of cartooning.
In recognizing Schulz’s place in this E&P pantheon, Lynn Johnston (of For Better or For Worse) writes about her friend, idol, and mentor. In putting a finger on Peanuts’ appeal, Johnston says Schulz “had the courage to talk about loneliness and loss, about disappointment and anger. In so doing, he profoundly influenced a new generation of comic artists and readers as well. It was rebellion in reverse; impact with understatement and an honesty that healed even when it hurt.”
Perhaps “unwittingly,” she goes on, Schulz “helped to unlock a nation’s inhibitions. … He made us look at and into ourselves. … Until this funny, gentle, and simply drawn work came to be a part of our culture, we didn’t talk too openly about deep personal feelings. You were a failure if you did.”
Among the inky fingered fraternity of his colleagues, Schulz is, quite simply, revered. Many of today’s cartoonists ply their craft because he counseled them with advice and encouragement. If he didn’t touch them personally, he nonetheless inspired them with the example of his work.
Said Doonesbury’s creator, Garry Trudeau: “While the public at large regards Peanuts as a cherished part of our shared popular culture, cartoonists also see it as an irreplaceable source of purpose and pride, our gold standard for work that is both illuminating and aesthetically sublime. Schulz completely revolutionized the art form, deepening it, filling it with possibility, giving permission to all who followed to write from the heart and the intellect.”
Schulz had his bad days, like all of us. He could snap at people for no apparent reason. “That’s the Lucy in me,” he might say afterwards in apology.
For the most part, however, no one could tell from his demeanor that he was fabulously wealthy and famous. As Greg Evans (creator of Luann) once said: “He never made you feel like you had to pay any dues to relate to him as a fellow cartoonist.”
What Lynn Johnston doesn’t say in her essay, though, is that Peanuts was the first of the big box-office successes of the present era in licensing comics. The Age of Schulz is characterized as much by the extensive merchandising of comic strip characters as it is by the deceptive simplicity of a drawing style that many other cartoonists tried, some less adeptly than others, to imitate in hopes that drawing style alone would lead them to experience similar success.
In short, Schulz’s biggest influence in the world of newspapering lies in showing how important a comic strip can been in the economic life of a newspaper. Just as the Yellow Kid demonstrated the commercial impact of the comics, so does Peanuts. Schulz’s success is a re-affirmation of the very principles that were enacted by the earliest newspaper comics, principles that guaranteed the survival of the comics medium.
And Schulz — and Dilbert — will help the medium survive again, into the 21st Century.
Not only was Peanuts a huge financial success for both its host newspapers and its creator, it was also good psychologically. As Schulz said when he retired, doing the comic strip fulfilled his childhood dream. Being a cartoonist was all he ever wanted to be. And it was, in effect, all he was. When he ceased being a cartoonist, he ceased being.
Schulz’s death will go down in the history of popular culture as one of those ineffable coincidences. Dying precisely on the eve of the publication of the last Sunday Peanuts that he would ever produce, Schulz gave numinous meaning to an otherwise untimely and therefore meaningless exit.
Among millions of Peanuts fans and thousands of cartoonists, that Sunday, February 13, 2000, had been anxiously anticipated ever since Schulz announced his retirement on December 14 — two months before, almost to the day. But we never expected Schulz to go, too.
For nearly fifty years, Schulz produced a comic strip for every day in the calendar. And he did it, as we all now acknowledge, himself. No assistants. No letterers. Just Sparky. In this, Schulz represented — stood for — cartoonists in an almost emblematic way. He was what all cartoonists are — only more so.
Schulz did it himself because, he insisted, there was no other way of doing it. The characters were aspects of himself, and you can’t get someone else to do aspects of yourself.
“If you read the strip for just a few months, you will know me,” Schulz said, “because everything that I am goes into the strip. That is me.”
And so those of us who have been reading Peanuts for most of our reading lives grieved at Schulz’s death as we would at the loss of any friend. As of 9:45 p.m. on February 12, 2000, that friend is not around in person any longer.
And there can be no more stunning an instance of the intimate relation between a creator and his creation than that accompanying the publication of the last Peanuts strip that Schulz produced. Schulz’s nearly simultaneous departure proclaimed with the awful power of some sort of celestial poetry that, as he often said, he was himself the comic strip he created. When the show stopped, he had to leave the building.
It was, as all good comic strips are (Schulz’s in particular), a masterpiece of timing — ”prophetic and magical,” Lynn Johnston said. “He made one last deadline. There’s romance in that.”
It was even more than that. Writing Schulz a posthumous letter, Johnston credited her friend with one last enviable ending:
“Leaving us as your last strip appeared was the winning touchdown,” she wrote, “the Valentine, and the Great Pumpkin all rolled into one. It was more than a punchline: it was a powerful reminder that there’s more to this life than we can see with our eyes and feel with our senses. I cannot imagine an exit with more class. Once again, you accomplished something extraordinary.”
But Peanuts continues. Not freshly minted strips as before for almost fifty years. By prior agreement, the syndicate agreed that no one would continue producing new strips. So what we see these days in our newspapers is Schulz’s Peanuts. Not a concoction by some hired hands but reruns of his strip from the mid-1970s. And books of reprints. All Schulz’s work. All of it, our friend Sparky himself.
And so the Age of Schulz goes on. It would even without the reruns and the reprints. His impact on his profession was profound. He gave the medium a new direction, and we will be traveling that road — whether cartoonist or reader — for a good long time to come.